Charles Petzold

Robert Altman, 1925-2006

November 21, 2006
New York, NY

Released in the middle of 1975, Nashville is perched midway between the twin national tragedies of the Vietnam War and the Watergate Scandal, and the optimism of the forthcoming American Bicentennial. The movie takes place over several days in Nashville, Tennessee, and just about everybody is either a country music star, or a struggling musician, or a devout fan. The movie is filled with original music, most of it composed by the actors themselves, some of it wildly satirical, some of it deeply touching, but none of it superfluous, and all of it contributing to the characterization and narrative.

At times Nashville seems like a disorganized collage, as if its 24 equally credited (and equally paid) stars were simply dumped in their scenes and told to make the best of it. Yet, the more times I see this movie, the more I am impressed most of all by its dramatic structure, partially imposed (I'm sure) by the screenplay by Joan Tewkesbury, but also by Robert Altman's uncanny ability to draw narrative strength from apparent chaos. Is it a coincidence that nearly all 24 characters are in both the early scene at the airport and the last scene at the outdoor concert? Or that a combination of a recorded political speech broadcast from a car and the lyrics of the first song we hear by Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) provide a fast-forward through American history up to the present?

The most amazing scene of Nashville has Tom Frank (Keith Carradine) — a character who might then have been called a "womanizer" but today we might term a "sex addict" — performing in a small cafe, singing a song titled "I'm Easy" to a very special person in the audience. But there are actually four women in the audience who think he's singing just for her, and the combination of the song, the characters, and Altman's filming and editing combine to make this scene one of the best ever movie settings of a song.

The early 1970's were a good time for Altman, when the crumbling of the studios and the loosening of censorship let him make very individualistic and idiosyncratic films. Altman never got anywhere close to a genre film without completing rethinking and redefining it. There has never been a war movie like MASH (1970), a western like McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), a detective film like The Long Goodbye (1973), or a young-crooks-on-the-run film like Thieves Like Us (1974). I think Nashville was Altman's masterpiece, and after that he seemed to go into a strange period of oddities like 3 Women (1977) and A Wedding (1978), and then disasters like Popeye (1980). Only Altman afficionados know what came next (screen adaptations of plays, mostly). I once tried to sit through Beyond Therapy (1987) but it was much too painful.

Then came Altman's "comeback" of the early 1990s. For many years I never tired of watching my laserdiscs of The Player (1992) or Short Cuts (1993). I also enjoyed Kansas City (1996), and got a big kick out of Dr. T and the Women (2000), although I'd be hard pressed to explain exactly why. The last Altman film I saw was Gosford Park (2001), which demonstrated that even at the age of 75 he was able to tackle a movie of a sort he'd never done before, and make it his own.

Altman never attemped to simplify life. His movies are messy, chaotic, impolite, but above all, honest and bursting with energy. Altman's America is a crazy place that always seems familiar.